Weall know the story of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage and his dream of finding a shorter route to the Far East by sailing west. Less known is the story of a Dutch sea captain, which took place about one hundred years later.

On May 18, 1596, Willem Barents set sail from Amsterdam with a crew of seventeen men. They headed north, up the Scandinavian coast towards the Arctic Sea, on a voyage to find a way to China and Japan by sailing around Russia and Siberia. Barents believed that this would shorten the traditional route to the Far East, via Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, by half.

a frozen sea

After about three months they reached the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya, but the sea in front of them was solid ice. Barents turned south towards the north coast of Russia and dropped anchor in a small bay. This was to be their trap. Within a few days they found that the sea all around them had frozen. It was now late August, and much colder weather was coming. As the ice thickened, it started to crush the ship.


minus 55° C

Barents’ solution was to take the vessel before it sank, and to build a house from it in which they would pass the winter. The following spring, when the ice started to melt, they planned to reverse the process, taking the house apart and rebuilding the ship. And they managed to do just that. The house was fifteen metres long and nine metres wide with a fire and a chimney. Conditions during the colder months were terrible. Temperatures fell to -55° C and the Arctic winter brought almost total darkness. They survived by hunting polar bears and .

death of a captain

Against the odds, when spring came they rebuilt the ship and set sail, eventually reaching Amsterdam. Barents himself did not survive the return trip, but most of the crew did.

A later solution for a quicker way to the east was the Suez Canal, completed in 1869. But this too has had its problems, as we saw in March of this year, when the Ever Given, an enormous container ship, got stuck, blocking the canal for nearly a week and causing serious disruption to world trade.

global warming

Today, global heating is causing the Arctic ice to melt at an alarming rate. This means that with the use of ice-breakers, Barents’ plan is being realised and container ships are beginning to use the northeast passage. As the Arctic sea ice further reduces, this route may become ever more popular. However, the consequences of an increasingly busy northeast passage on the environment and its sensitive ecosystem are worrying.